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The Advent of Solar EV Charging a Promising New Trend

by Ron CoganSeptember 13, 2014
Electric cars are hot. Solar energy is cool. Combine the two and you have a formula for true zero-emission motoring. The truth is, electric vehicles will not be truly fossil-fuel-free until their batteries are charged using only renewable energy sources like solar or wind power, rather than electricity generated by coal- or gas-fired power plants. […]

Electric cars are hot. Solar energy is cool. Combine the two and you have a formula for true zero-emission motoring. The truth is, electric vehicles will not be truly fossil-fuel-free until their batteries are charged using only renewable energy sources like solar or wind power, rather than electricity generated by coal- or gas-fired power plants. Thus, a movement. Major automakers have joined up with established solar power system manufacturers as an initial step to make this happen.

Ford's ‘Drive Green for Life’ program offers a high-efficiency, rooftop solar system to Focus Electric EV owners. Ford has teamed up solar technology company SunPower to market. a 2.5 kilowatt solar system comprised of SunPower E18 Series solar panels. The system can produce an average of 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, sufficient for driving a Focus Electric about 1,000 miles monthly.  The SunPower rooftop solar system will also be compatible with the coming 2012 Ford C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Owners can reduce their total cost of ownership by generating enough energy from the SunPower solar system to offset the electricity required to charge the vehicle at night. These high-efficiency solar panels generate approximately 50 percent more electricity than conventional panels and have a smaller footprint on the roof. The complete SunPower solar system will have a base price of under $10,000 after federal tax credits. There may be further local and state rebates plus other incentives to reduce the cost. There may an additional cost if modifications to the roof or electrical service panel are required, or if excessive wiring is required. The system includes a residential monitoring system that can track the performance of the solar system on the web or with an iPhone application.

Nissan has also aligned itself with SunPower to encourage solar charging. This automaker’s approach is to assist LEAF electric car owners in learning how a SunPower residential solar system can reduce carbon emissions while controlling the cost of charging their LEAF. They’re doing this with online video tutorials and an ability to request a free home solar assessment.

BMW and Real Goods Solar are partnering to offer BMW ActiveE drivers an option to charge their electric vehicles at home with solar energy. Available to ActiveE customers in California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York, Real Goods Solar will design, install, and monitor a turn-key solar system at a savings of about 35 percent, with lease and purchase options to suit individual residential energy and charging needs.

While GM is not yet offering solar charging to consumers, it is installing solar charging canopies at Chevrolet dealerships to charge Volts and other EVs in the future. It will also provide ‘green’ electricity to the dealership. The Chevy Green Zone initiative will generate electricity equivalent to 12 full vehicle charges-per-day. Excess electricity generated will supplement the dealership's power needs.

GM has signed commercial agreements with Sunlogics to supply these solar charging canopies as well as for the installation of large-scale solar arrays at other GM facilities.  According to GM, global solar energy use is predicted to more than double by 2016 and it is committed to doubling its solar energy output globally by the end of 2015. GM is the auto industry's leading user of renewable energy and has three of the largest automotive rooftop solar power installations in the U.S., as well as the world's largest rooftop solar installation at its assembly plant in Zaragoza, Spain.

Other dealers take a different direction. For example, Win Kelly Chevrolet/Buick/GMC of Clarksville, Maryland – which sells the Chevy Volt – has installed an ATR Sun-Tracking Solar EV Charging Station at its dealership to serve its needs and those of Chevy Volt electric car owners who need to top off.

Manufactured by Advanced Technology & Research Corp. (ATR), the high-efficiency, small footprint solar charger incorporates six solar panels set on a highly-visible, 18-foot-tall pole that provides a striking ‘green’ statement. Mounting the solar panels in this way keeps the panels well overhead, optimizing the solar installation while minimizing the need for space at ground level.

The Sun-Tracking Solar EV Charging Station’s solar array uses GPS-based sun-tracking technology to follow the sun, an advantage over fixed solar installations that’s claimed to produce 30 to 45-percent greater power than typical rooftop or canopy-mounted panels.

The ATR system is also grid-tied to assure continuous availability of charging power and, when not charging a vehicle, solar-generated power is fed back to the grid.

One of the latest moves toward solar charging comes from Tesla Motors’ Supercharger system, which uses electricity generated by a SolarCity-built solar carport to provide relative fast-charging exclusively for Tesla Model S drivers. Tesla’s aim is to install its $250,000 Supercharger systems at strategic locations across the country to facilitate long-distance battery electric travel. The 100 kilowatt Supercharger is designed to replenish enough energy in a half-hour charge to provide a Model S an additional three hours of driving at 60 mph. Tesla says that over the course of a year, each Supercharger installation is designed to generate greater solar energy than is consumed by the Tesla vehicles using it.

Some electric car owners are motivated to take steps on their own to drive completely emission-free. Consider, for instance, the path taken by Monterey Bay, California resident Bill Meade, an electric car enthusiast who planned to buy a Nissan LEAF and power it with solar panels installed at his home. With dealers in his area pricing LEAFs with a premium due to early demand, he opted to first install the solar system and then buy his LEAF when local prices returned to Nissan’s MSRP of about $32,000.

Meade’s experience is worth noting. His roof-mounted solar system came at a cost of $24,000 but was offset by a federal incentive of $7,500, with the State of California kicking in an additional $2,500. The solar firm applied the full $10,000 credit, bringing the project cost to $14,000.

Meade chose to pay for the system up front rather than paying lease payments. He felt this was a win-win situation, sharing: “I could wipe out my electric bills (saving $250 per month), be ready to charge up a new electric car (saving $200 per month in gas costs), and help reduce environmental pollution associated with electric power generation…while also driving a zero pollution car.” Well said.

When Meade did get his LEAF at Nissan’s $32,000 MSRP, the full value of the $7,500 federal electric car incentive was applied up front. Then, the $2,500 California state incentive check that arrived in the mail aided the installation of a 220 volt charging station. He found a Schneider EVlink Level 2 charging station for $800 at Home Depot and had an electrician run a 220-volt line to his garage at a cost of $600. The result left him with $1,100 cash from the California rebate. Meade says, “I gave myself a nice week-long vacation on the beach in the tropics as a reward for making the move to electric independence!”